Thanks to Franz Kafka, 20th-century German-language literature (and culture) is – to a great extent – defined by an angst-ridden flavour. But Kafka – with his shadowy, elusive parables – was “not spontaneously spawned, Athena-like, from the cranium of German letters,” explains the New York-based writer and translator Peter Wortsman (@) in Tales of the German Imagination from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann. Kafka, though original, wasn’t all that independent. Terror, madness, melancholy, anxiety, fear, violence, horror – all these dark emotions and tendencies had had quite a history on the Teutonic turf – think of the cunning, cannibalistic witch of Hansel and Gretel. Kafka belonged to a context and had his precursors:
among the German Romantics, as well as his contemporaries working in kindred veins, writers of talent, imagination and stylistic daring scribbling away in Berne, Berlin, Vienna and the far corners of Germany and the Austro-Hungary Empire. And if Kafka’s dark fantasies resonated with readers in the English-speaking world, it is not only because they spoke to the existential angst of the moment. The path had already been paved by Carroll and Wilde, Kipling, Wells and Orwell – an author whose name inspired an almost synonymous adjective, Orwellian. The American imagination, meanwhile, had already been primed by home-grown fabulists, Irving, Hawthorne and Poe, whose inspiration had been stoked by Hoffmann, von Eichendorff and Tieck [all Germanic]…
Darkness is not, of course, a German prerogative. But the German imagination set an early standard, poignantly and precisely sounding the sinister in the flights of fancy of E.T.A. Hoffmann and the tales collected and retold by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Here I will share three paragraphs from a short story called The Sandman written by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) in 1816 – as it appears in Wortman’s wonderful anthology. Sandman is a character in Western and Northern European folklore.
In the following section, Nathanael – the protagonist of Hoffmann’s tale – recounts his childhood terror of Sandman in a letter to Lothar, the brother of his fiancée, Klara. The words are scary and funny and reveal a troubling truth about human psychology, and, by extension, the human condition.
With a burning desire to know more about this Sandman and his connection to us children, I finally asked the old woman who took care of my youngest sister: ‘What kind of man is that, the Sandman?’
‘Oh, Thanelchen,’ she replied, ‘don’t you know yet? He’s a bad man who comes to visit children when they won’t go to sleep and flings a handful of sand in their eyes, so they scratch themselves bloody, then he flings them in his bag and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children; they sit up there in their nest and have crooked beaks like owls with which they pick out the eyes of naughty human brats.’
So in my mind I painted a grim picture of that awful Sandman; as soon as I heard that lumbering step on the stairs I trembled with fear and horror. My mother could get nothing out of me but that one word stuttered amidst tears: ‘Sandman! Sandman!’ Then I bounded up to my bedroom and all night long I was tormented by the terrible presence of the Sandman.
By the time I was old enough to know that all that business about the Sandman and his children’s nest on the half-moon the nanny had told me couldn’t possibly be true, the Sandman had become entrenched in my mind as a hair-raising spook, and I was gripped by dread and terror when I heard him not only come clambering up the steps…
…but tearing open the door to my father’s study and barging in. Sometimes he stayed away a long time, but then he came more often, night after night. This went on for years, but I was never able to get used to that ghastly spook, nor did the grisly image of the Sandman ever fade from my mind.
For more German darkness check out this wonderful Penguin Classics selection of stories by the Brothers Grimm and this short biography of Kafka illustrated by the American cartoonist R. Crumb.